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MBTA exploring solar panels

Panels on terminal could serve future energy needs

By Justin A. Rice
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

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The Boston Engine Terminal might aesthetically blight East Somerville, but the massive T-shaped commuter rail maintenance facility could become a ray of light for the MBTA.

About six months ago, a solar power company approached the T about installing solar panels on the Boston Engine Terminal’s nearly 8-acre roof. Now T officials are not only considering installing solar photovoltaic arrays on the Boston Engine Terminal, known as the BET, but also at the Readville Yard on the Boston-Dedham border and at Billerica’s Iron Horse Park.

Currently, there are no solar panels in the MBTA system, and Stuart Spina of the T Riders Union is thrilled by the idea of making a huge building such as the terminal “less dirty.’’

“There’s thousands of square feet on these buildings with megawatts ripe for the taking,’’ he said.

The largest electricity consumer in Massachusetts, the T is currently studying the feasibility of installing solar power at the three facilities as part of a larger energy conservation program.

“The GM [Richard A. Davey] has pushed a lot on the renewable energy piece as well as anything associated with budget efficiencies and budget savings,’’ said Andrew Brennan, the T’s director of environmental affairs. “His big push has been on a lot of the renewable energy components, solar components particularly, and wind turbines.’’

Because the MBTA will officially begin the process of contracting third-party solar instillation firms by putting out a request for proposals around Labor Day, Brennan declined to identify the company that originally approached the T.

“We gave [the company] a little bit more information on it because we had looked at building our own solar panels on [the terminal] but we weren’t able to get grants for it,’’ said Brennan, who added that it is too early to determine how much solar energy the roof could produce. “It got us thinking there might be an economic model out here that’s worth pursuing.’’

The T is considering a variety of business models for this project, including leasing the space for solar panels for about 25 years at a time. It also could engage in a land lease while simultaneously purchasing the solar power to run the facility that houses the panels.

The T, which is currently rebidding its energy contract in hopes of saving $4.7 million on electricity in fiscal year 2012, would only buy the solar energy if the installation firm can compete with the wholesale rate.

“We’re going to let the developers propose that to us,’’ said Brennan. “They might have a client they want to sell the energy to and need the space to build it or we could buy the electricity for our operations.’’

Brian Kane of the MBTA Advisory Board, which provides public oversight of MBTA expenditures, said the proposal looks flawless other than the fact that the savings probably won’t put a dent in the T’s budget deficit.

“There’s no downside I can see, as long as they can get the numbers to work,’’ Kane said. “I would hope the energy would be used in-house, rather than sold back to the grid. That would make more sense.’’

Brennan said the T could pick an instillation firm as early as this winter and start generating solar power by the spring. “With solar, it survives on the margins economically,’’ he said. “It could be the right site for a lot of reasons, but the construction might be difficult and that would kill the economics of it. . . . We’ll put it out there and see what the market says.’’

Somerville officials welcomed the idea to the city, which last week was named a Green Community by the state as a clean energy leader now eligible for renewable power and energy efficiency grants.

“We wholeheartedly embrace any and all efforts to incorporate solar or wind energy in any development within our borders, as demonstrated by existing solar arrays on several of our public school buildings,’’ Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said in a prepared statement. “Our current focus is on expanding and improving green development, and I applaud the MBTA for this decision.’’

Board of Aldermen president Rebekah L. Gewirtz said putting solar panels on the BET is long overdue. “Any steps we can take to increase energy efficiency is going to be better for us in the long run economically and environmentally,’’ she said.

Justin Rice can be reached at rice.ju@gmail.com.


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